Sustainable Development Goals: All our Countries, Including the United States, Can and Must Do Better

Remarks at a UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development
by Ambassador Samantha Power,
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations

U.S. Mission to the United Nations,
New York City,
July 19, 2016

As delivered

Thank you, Ambassador Oh Joon and Ambassador Shava, for leading this forum in reflecting on the 2030 Agenda and for focusing our discussion on what makes the Sustainable Development Goals exceptional – that they apply to, and are owned by, everyone.

It’s been 10 months since 193 Member States came together to make these collective commitments – a real achievement. But the real test is, of course, what each of our nations will do to meet those commitments, within our own countries and around the world.

President Obama committed the United States to achieve the SDGs, and since September, we’ve made significant efforts, both within our own country and abroad, to do our part. Today, I’d like to focus on three key areas where all our countries, including the United States, can and must do better.

First, we must make the data tracking our relative progress toward reaching these goals more transparent and more accessible, and use it to adapt and improve public policies. We have never had so much capacity to measure – in real time – our efforts; yet our findings are too rarely made public, or rendered in a way that’s useful to policymakers and potential problem solvers. For example, data shows us that approximately one-third of food in the United States is wasted each year at the consumer and retail level. One-third. If we can use data to pinpoint sources of food loss and waste, we can improve our chances of reducing it – which is target 12.3. The United States is committed to establishing a transparent, publicly accessible online platform tracking our progress on the SDGs, and we urge other countries to do the same.

Second, where such analysis identifies areas where we need to improve, we have to speak openly to them. Too often, we governments try to hide these shortfalls, rather than shine a light on them. But acknowledging where we are coming short is an essential first step toward remedying chronic deficiencies and gaps in opportunity. To give an example from my own country: more than 60 million Americans qualify for free civil legal assistance, but over half of those who seek it are turned away by legal aid organizations that lack the funds and staff to take on their cases. Now, because we know that equal access to justice is critical to defending many human rights – a fact reflected by the inclusion of Goal 16 in the SDGs – we are working to fill this and other gaps in access to justice in the U.S. We know we have a long way to go. But we cannot even begin to address them – or learn from how other countries have confronted similar challenges – if we’re not willing to speak candidly to these issues. The National Voluntary Reviews are one of the many ways we can and must evaluate our implementation efforts.

Third, and finally, we must draw upon the ideas, innovation, and resources beyond government – including civil society groups, the private sector, faith-based institutions, academia, and individual citizens. We all witnessed how the Agenda’s drafting was enriched by incorporating a diverse range of stakeholders; we would be foolish not to do everything we can to involve the same partners – and others – in working to implement the SDGs. To give just one quick example of how this can work, the Open Government Partnership brings together governments and civil societies from 70 countries around the world – including the U.S. – to share innovative strategies in tackling many of the key drivers of poverty and inequality, such as corruption. We welcome Nigeria, OGP’s newest member, and encourage other countries that are eligible to join as well.

Despite the essential role of civil society, many UN Member States continue to view civil society groups as adversaries in this and other efforts, rather than partners, and are taking steps to suppress them, rather than to empower them. In May, the UN NGO Committee blocked the application of the Committee to Protect Journalists – an impartial organization that promotes press freedom and defends the right of journalists worldwide to report the news without fear of reprisal. That same month, a group of Member States blocked more than 20 NGOs from participating in a high-level HIV/AIDS meeting, simply because of their advocacy work on LGBTI rights. If we are to have any hope of accomplishing the SDGs – which includes a target to end the AIDS epidemic, we have to guard space for civil society both within our own countries and here at the United Nations.

As many of you know, as the SDGs were being negotiated, the UN made an effort to reach out directly to individuals who are often excluded from designing such development efforts. A person from the Philippines spoke of wanting, as she put it, “a whole world without discrimination,” saying that, too often, “being different means being hurt.” A mother in Kosovo spoke of the need for a reliable source of water. A disabled man in Thailand said greater support was needed for people who are unable to work. And one Rwandan farmer said it was meaningful just to be consulted. She said, “I used to think of the United Nations as a high-level body that is not close to people. But now, we are sitting together and the UN is hearing my ideas on how I see the future.”

Thank you.